Monday, September 26, 2022


Halloween The Year Round

Years ago, when I was in my thirties, we bought an "old man" Halloween mask in anticipation of a party.  It was a big hit because of an eerie realism.  That realism was enhanced by three things:  a fringe of grey hair around the scalp; deep-sunken eye sockets from inside of which one's real eyes, however nice, would appear penetrating and sinister; and a hinged jaw that allowed the old man realistically to talk as you talked.  For years after the party, we would secrete the mask somewhere in our house and spring it from behind at close range on some unsuspecting victim, which always drew a big laugh from the witnesses, if not from the victim.

I am become the old man mask.  Not often, but often enough, an incident will occur in public that makes it plain to me that that is how I now "present" in the world, sometimes to the point of eliciting a startle reflex when, for example, I look up from a menu at my waitress for the first time, or open the door of a men's room and bump into a stranger.

This is, of course, socially isolating.  

There are two ways of coping with it.  One is to proceed in defiance, to insist on acting in accordance with the younger, inner self.  And indeed over a period of time the spell usually can be broken.  If I take a 12-week course, not via Zoom but in person, by the fourth week or so the phenomenon will have largely passed, which is not to say that stereotypes of age won't be flung about, some legitimately.  (Nearly every stereotype has roots in generalizations that are accurate.)

And there are people on the other side who escape the other side of the syndrome via a gentle and open nature.  They serve out the milk of human kindness to everyone.  (Speaking of stereotypes, nurses by virtue of their calling often so serve it out.  And beyond that the phenomenon is partly culturally determined.  I found that when I was in Ireland I was accepted by strangers more readily than I am here, in one-on-one encounters with strangers that is.)  In this respect as in others, the milk of human kindness heals; it is very welcome.

The other way of coping is to find sanctuary somewhere where one is by choice physically isolated from others, like Quasimodo in his bell tower, Bigfoot in his dense forest.  It's lonely in the sanctuary, but one does not have to compensate constantly for wearing the mask.

And modern technology can serve as a "counter-mask" of youth that one can attempt to present to the world from within one's sanctuary.  One can toy with the task of trying to appear of indeterminate age on one's Twitter or Facebook account.  And if it works, it's liberating.  (For it to work, best to avoid posts that ask the reader if s/he can identify a roller skate key, or the button on the floor of a car that was used in the distant past to control the car's high beams.)  And yes, this very blog itself serves as such a counter-mask.

One person comes to mind as having bravely and with great energy employed both coping mechanisms.  His debilitating mask was not the old man's mask; it was far more terrible even than that.  His name was Stephen Hawking.  He seemed to have little or no self-consciousness about appearing in public in all of his grotesquerie, communicating in his inhuman, computer-animated voice.  And of course, from behind the counter-mask of print, he wowed the world, or perhaps better to say that he wowed two worlds -- the scientific world, in the most esteemed of peer-reviewed journals, and the popular world.  (A Brief History of Time sat atop the New York Times bestseller list for a year or more if I am not mistaken.)

With or without role models, one grows weary behind the mask.  And the weariness has physical consequences.  And so, we experience a vicious cycle that does not end, if it ends at all, until the time of molting, when we leave the weary mask behind for good.

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